Sunday 23 May 2004

Useless but entertaining

I’ve been spending too much time reading detective novels. If I didn’t believe in taking responsibility for my actions, I’d blame Shelley Powers.

Canon Wordtank G50 Japanese electronic dictionaryThree weeks ago, before I realized how sick I’d been, I wrote in an email to Shelley:

This afternoon I’m going to the doctor (woke up feeling lousy, even though I had a good night’s sleep). I think that I’m simply worn out. I could use a holiday. I might go back to bed to play with the new electronic Japanese dictionary that arrived earlier in the week.

(I’d been debating for a couple of months whether to replace my venerable Canon Wordtank IDX-9700 with the spiffy new Wordtank G50 and had finally succumbed. I placed the order with SmartImports in Japan and received it a few days later.)

Shelley replied:

You do sound worn out. I would recommend a useless but entertaining novel or mystery or something of that nature, than a Japanese dictionary, which will probably wear you out even more, but that’s just me.

Glad you’re going to doctor. She’ll probably just tell you, “go to bed with a useless but entertaining novel or mystery…”

I wouldn’t describe myself as a big fan of crime or mystery novels, even though as a kid I loved Sherlock Holmes and I’ve read most of James Ellroy’s books and all of John Le Carré’s. And I’d been greatly entertained by Alan Furst’s pre-WWII spy thrillers, until Language Hat totally undermined my confidence in their authenticity.

Cover of Takagi Akimitsu's The Tattoo Murder Case The problem with useless but entertaining novels, I thought to myself, is that they are so badly written. But Shelley’s advice made sense somehow and I did recall that I’d enjoyed a Japanese mystery novel, Takagi Akimitsu’s The Tattoo Murder Case which was, just as the Washington Post Book World described, “Clever, kinky, highly entertaining”.

So, on my way to the doctor’s surgery in Woollahra, I dropped by Kinokuniya in the city to see if they had copies of the other Takagi novels that have been translated into English: Honeymoon to Nowhere and The Informer. “Out of stock,” said the sales clerk with an apologetic shrug, as she stared at her computer, but I headed off to the Asian literature section anyway.

Cover of Yokomizo Seishi's The Inugami ClanNo Takagi, but Yokomizo Seishi’s The Inugami Clan (A Gothic Tale of Murder from Japan’s Master of Crime) looked as though it might do the trick so I grabbed it, plus a copy of Maruya Sai’ichi’s Grass for My Pillow and headed for the checkout. When I got back home after seeing the doctor, I emailed Shelley about my purchases. She replied:

You make me laugh Jonathon. In a very good way. I should have known you would get a Japanese gothic murder mystery. Don’t take this in the wrong way, but you really are a charming person.

A charming person with a one-track mind, I think she meant. Paradoxically, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so much of my behavior happens outside my awareness so I guess it says a lot about me that not for an instant did I consider getting anything other than a Japanese murder mystery. I had to settle for an English translation because my reading skills aren’t yet up to reading (say) Takagi Akimitsu in Japanese. But I’m getting there and, for when that moment arrives, there are Japanese translations of Agatha Christie, Maurice Leblanc, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting on the bookshelf.

Anyway, The Inugami Clan—which followed the Holmesian model of a clever detective (Kindaichi Kosuke/Sherlock Holmes) solving the mystery on behalf of a well-intentioned but inept policeman (Police Chief Tachibana/Inspector Lestrade)—was just what the doctor (or rather Doctor Shelley) ordered. I wrote back:

Well, that turned out to be a really great suggestion! Reading a “useless but entertaining novel or mystery or something”, I mean. The Japanese gothic murder mystery (which I’d never have thought of buying had it not been for your advice) is exactly what I needed to read. I’m only about half way through—I’ve spent much of the weekend in bed, reading a few pages, then having a nap. Just what I needed to do. It doesn’t even matter that the plot is preposterous, the characters stereotypical, and the writing ordinary at best. Perhaps those are precisely the qualities required for a book to read when one isn’t feeling the best. Was that the reasoning behind your suggestion?

Shelley elaborated:

I did recommend the mystery because it’s not the type of writing that will engage you too deeply. It allows your mind to just disassociate for a time, and this is, to me, as restful as sleep. You spend an inordinate amount of time ‘enriching your life’, with deep and thoughtful movies and books, and learning Japanese, and keeping up with your skills for work, and all your other reading and writing. This is a goodness, but it takes lots of brain firing and emotional and physical CPU processing—if I may use a tech metaphor—and this isn’t necessarily restful.

That was it, of course: too much brain firing and emotional and physical CPU processing. No wonder I felt worn out and in need of a holiday. It occurred to me that I used to rely on crap television shows to allow my mind to disassociate for a time. But, apart from watching The Sopranos each week, there’s no way I could go back to watching TV. Why? The ads annoy me too much.

So, given that Shelley’s theory made sense, I realized I needed to read some more useless but entertaining mystery novels. This time, I headed off to Abbey’s, which has the most extensive crime section of any Sydney bookstore. They even had a copy of Takagi Akimitsu’s The Informer, but as soon as I saw the price—AU$36/US$25 for a paperback that Amazon sells for US$10—I put it smartly back on the shelf.

I hadn’t really given any thought to how I might select a non-Japanese mystery novel and spent twenty futile minutes browsing the shelves. In desperation, I turned to a woman browsing in the same aisle and said, “Excuse me. Do you mind my asking if you’ve read many crime novels?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “And yes, I’ve read quite a few.”

“Could you recommend any well-written crime novels?”

“What do you mean by ‘well-written’?” she asked, with a faint smile.

“I suppose I mean that the prose style isn’t so offensive that it draws attention to itself. And I think I might prefer what seems to be called the ‘police procedural’, where the focus is on the nuts-and-bolts of solving the crime.”

She thought for a few moments, then said: “You might want to try Kathy Reichs, Ian Rankin, or Michael Connelly.”

It didn’t occur to me at the time that she might only have picked “Rankin” and “Reichs” because we were standing in front of the “R” author shelves. I thanked her, picked up a random Kathy Reichs paperback, read the cover blurb, and put it back on the shelf. I knew I’d never get through a book in which the main character is called Dr. Temperance Brennan. I already knew about Ian Rankin—having had to sit through an episode of the Inspector Rebus TV series at a friend’s place—so he didn’t rate a glance. I’m not sympathetic to contemporary British writing and, in any case, that “most compelling mind in modern crime fiction”, “gritty realisation of Edinburgh”, and “dark heart of contemporary Scotland which lurks behind the elegant and historic buildings of the tourist trail” sounds as though it might take too much brain-firing and emotional CPU processing.

Cover of Michael Connelly's The Harry Bosch NovelsAll my hopes were now riding on Michael Connelly who, happily, came up trumps: Harry Bosch sounded like my kind of hard-bitten maverick LAPD homicide detective. Even better, Abbey’s had the first three Harry Bosch novels—The Black Echo, The Black Ice, and The Concrete Blonde—in an omnibus edition for only AU$29.95.

(I know the crime novel cognoscenti will be crying out at the unfairness of my dismissing Dr. Temperance Brennan when Harry happens to be short for Hieronymus, but I didn’t know that until I started reading the first novel.)

Now that I’m reading the fourth in the series, The Last Coyote, I’m glad that buying the trilogy “forced” me read them in the order in which they were written (I’m obsessive enough to have wanted to do that anyway, but the trilogy made it simpler). Connolly writes reasonably well, in the sense that the prose doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling and I’ve only cringed a couple of times in each book at—what I regard as—an awkward simile or metaphor. He also seems to write with authority, in that each procedural detail appears to be authentic—a product of his three years as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I guess. (I use the words “seems” and “appears” because, until I read Language Hat’s post, I was also impressed by Alan Furst’s “authenticity”.) And, the nice thing about reading Connolly’s books in order is that you can see his craft steadily improving: the supporting characters becoming more nuanced, the plots more complex, and the main character Bosch grappling more realistically with his demons.

I didn’t realize how popular Michael Connelly’s books are until I saw these posters on a bookstore door and read at Salon.com that his latest, The Narrows, is No. 1 on the Powell’s best seller list (it’s slipped to No. 5 on the New York Times list).

Michael Connelly detective novel posters

The store had copies of Connelly’s fifth book, The Poet, at a special promotional price of AU$9.95 (instead of the usual AU$17.95). When I asked the sales clerk why, she said: “I think the publishers want to suck you in so you’ll buy his latest one, The Narrows.”

Now—halfway through my fourth Connelly book, with another ten to go—I realize that (with Shelley’s help) I’ve learned something useful about myself. I need to lighten up, unwind more often, take things less seriously. It’s hard though, when you’ve always been a kind of “driven character”, as a lover once told me. That’s why I like Harry Bosch, he reminds me of myself in some ways. Or perhaps I should say, he reminds me of an idealized version of myself: a lone-wolf, intolerant of authority, lugging a ton of psychic baggage, unwilling or unable to sustain intimate relationships…

Even though I know I’m not supposed to overtax my emotional and intellectual CPU, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationshiop between motivation and behavior: not so much about why one criminal robbed a bank or another killed nine prostitutes but more about what motivates Bosch, someone who appears to think analytically and act methodically yet whose successes and failures are due in no small part to his emotions: the way they inform both his calculated decisions and his unreflective responses to events outside his immediate control.

Perhaps the difference between a detective in a novel and someone—like you, or me—in real life is that solving a fictional crime requires a delicate interplay between the protagonist’s analytical and intuitive states of awareness whereas much of the time we are, as Dave Rogers argues,

…not the rational, cognitive thinkers we all would like to believe we are… Most of what we do is behavior governed by non-thinking, largely emotional processes within our bodies. And for the vast majority of the time, it works exceedingly well, so we’re never inclined to think there is anything “wrong” with the way we behave. We’re blind to our own behavior. (“Jane, you ignorant slut.”)

If we’re asked “why” we did something, most of the time we’ll be able to craft what appears to be a perfectly rational explanation. That explanation will almost invariably involve making assertions that cast ourselves in the best light. That is to say, among the set of possible explanations, we will choose the ones that make us feel best about ourselves… (Why Ask Why?)

“We’re blind to our own behavior.” As I said, I’ve been mulling over the degree to which we are prisoners of our upbringing, our experiences, and our sense of mission in life. In every way—and I don’t want to articulate how this is so, for fear of spoiling the experience for those who might be interested—Bosch exemplifies how those factors control his behavior. Connolly’s books are hardly great literature, yet they’re instructive nonetheless.

But maybe, contrary to Shelley’s advice, I’m trying to turn something useless but entertaining into something useful and entertaining. In other words, taking it all a little too seriously. Hey, what do you expect from someone who has a problem with authority figures?

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I have a lot of fun with Jonathon Delacroix. He is so unashamed about being who he is, so erudite, so obsessed with Japan. No-one else could dislike the Beatles because the girls screamed and one wee'd behind him. There...

Posted by BARISTA on 28 June 2004

I have a lot of fun with Jonathon Delacroix. He is so unashamed about being who he is, so erudite, so obsessed with Japan. No-one else could dislike the Beatles because the girls screamed and one wee'd behind him. There...

Posted by BARISTA on 28 June 2004

Comments

Great post, Jonathon. I've been struggling to finish novels lately (yes, yes, reading _and_ writing them) and realized that re: reading it's because I haven't been letting myself slip into a story. I've been picking up one 'serious' book after another, getting a few pages in, and watching traffic through the window instead.

It's so seldom I'm able to read exactly what I want rather than books I'm either teaching on or studying. When I do have that rare treat, I look for something plot-driven and straight-forward. Unfortunately, after plowing through all my bookcases the other night, I have to admit I've read the three books I own fitting that bill too many times--I was in the mood for a frivolous spy novel, and Graham Greene is the closest I could come.

Posted by steve on 24 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Well, I can see my dastardly plot to get you to relax and turn your mind off for a time has failed. However, the end result is entertaining, so perhaps I should come up with more plots guaranteed to fail.

My personal favorites are the Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown books, about a woman and her animals, but most of the books are written from the perspective of the animals. It's easy to guess who 'dunnit', but I don't care -- I like the humor and the perspective and the humanity and richness of the environment. Brown's books have matured over time, too, until the first is completely unlike the rest (which is good, the first was weak). Aside from one of the books, which went too far outside of animal behavior, they're a good read.

For me that is. But then, the protagonist is a female character I can identify with, and even envy, more than a little.

(And I still chuckle that you picked up a Japanese gothic murder...)

Posted by Shelley on 24 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Dashiell Hammett is a longtime favorite of mine. And I like Michael Dibdin sometimes, particularly his standalone mysteries rather than the Aurelio Zen series.

But for the purest, most mind-disengaging read around (and I mean that in a good way), James Rollins can't be beat. Nothing relaxes a reader like super-evolved anthropomorphized kangaroo creatures!

Posted by steve on 24 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I like the Stephen Dobyns mysteries set in Saratoga NY in & around the horse racing scene there. Charlie Bradshaw is a likeable detective with a fair amount of psychic baggage & the details appear "authentic" in the restricted sense of "effective." Dobyns is also a poet, but he doesn't let that get in the way of his writing in these books, in which the prose is clear & unpretentious.

Posted by joseph duemer on 24 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Once you are finished Michael Connelly’s books and still find a "need" to indulge in crime novels I can only urge you Jonathon to try out Kathy Reichs.

Forensic anthropology is a very interesting field. I fist became interested in it through the Gideon Oliver novels by Aaron Elkins. They are light reading but have some interesting science (Aaron Elkins was, before his writing career took off, a professor of anthropology). Kathy Reichs is a noted forensic anthropologist in real life and brings a lot of her real life into Temperance Brennan her protagonist. Her novels are a lot darker and the crime scene descriptions a lot grittier than Elkins'. In both cases, while not absolutely necessary, it is a good idea to read the novels in sequence in order to understand some references.

Posted by Doug Alder on 24 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. (And Doug, I had a feeling you'd feel compelled to defend a fellow Canadian. I'll see if I can find Kathy Reichs' first book.)

I finished The Last Coyote and have started The Poet (Connolly's fifth novel, which doesn't feature Harry Bosch). Even if you're not interested in the Bosch series, I'd be surprised if this didn't grab your attention. Stephen King was not just generous but accurate when he wrote in the introduction to The Poet:

"Sometimes a novelist sends us a wonderful message between the lines: 'I am capable of much more than I thought.'"

Posted by Jonathon on 25 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Well, you've definitely got me interested in Connolly. And I second the recommendation of Hammett; I prefer him to Chandler, who's very good but a little too fond of his own "literariness." Hammett is the perfect hard-boiled novelist, and The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon are the perfect hard-boiled novels. The only problem is that he only wrote seven novels.

Posted by language hat on 25 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, look for Kate Ross's books. There are only four, sadly, since she died a few years ago, but they are lovely. Well-written, with characters. The setting's Regency England, which sounds silly and fluffy but manages not to be.

Posted by Lisa Firke on 25 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, I find it strange that you would want to read a Japanese translation of an Agatha Christie novel in Japanese, when you can read the original in English, and there are so much Japanese fiction, crime and other, that you could read that will never be translated into English. I don't think it is a very efficient way to study Japanese, as most translations tend to be in a slightly stilted, unnatural Japanese as they try to convey the nuances of the original. I've read one of the Maurice Leblanc Lupin novels, and though entertaining, the language was pretty heavy going and I can't see it being good practice for much apart from reading more Japanese translations of turn the century European literature. I can't imagine how anyone could teach themselves to read Japanese through slogging through such books, unless they were Arthur Waley-like linguistic geniuses. Personally I think Miyabe Miyuki is one of the best contemporary crime writers. Mohohan (模倣犯)which came out a couple of years is absolutely gripping.

Posted by Brendan on 25 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Actually Jonathon, as far as I know Kathy Reichs (http://www.kathyreichs.com/) is not Canadian. She is a native of Chicago. However she does work for the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Medecine Legale in Quebec for part of the year so we'll consider her an honorary Canadian. I recommended her simply because I love her work. It's a good thing you did this post though because it made me go look to see if Aaron Elkins has published any more Gideohn Oliver novels and as it turns out one hit the stores in January so I ordered it today.

Posted by Doug Alder on 25 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

LH, I don't know whether to suggest you start with the Harry Bosch novels or go straight to The Poet, which I'm reading now -- it's excellent.

Lisa, did Kate Ross write mysteries? They sound perilously close to romance novels (Regency England and all that) but I'll see if I can find one.

Brendan, someone else suggested that the Lupin stories were a good entree into reading Japanese and I extrapolated to Agatha Christie, thinking that because the English is relatively simple that the Japanese would be too. Reading your comment -- especially your observation about the "slightly stilted, unnatural Japanese as they try to convey the nuances of the original" -- I realize that I've made a false assumption. I read Miyabe Miyuki's All She Was Worth in English and wasn't too impressed. But attempting Takagi Akimitsu in the original Japanese probably makes a lot more sense than a Japanese translation of Agatha Christie.

Doug, an honorary Canadian is pretty close to being a real Canadian, no? I'll see if I can find a copy of Deja Dead.

Posted by Jonathon on 25 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon:

Yes, Kate Ross wrote mysteries, not romances. Very intelligent, well-researched, good reads.

Posted by Lisa on 26 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Kate Ross titles:

Cut to the Quick
A Broken Vessel
Whom the Gods Love
The Devil in Music

Posted by Lisa on 26 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

May I suggest Mo Hayder's new novel, Tokyo. Which may satisfy the mystery craving and offer some Japan-o-phile interest as well. And if you liked Michael Connolly perhaps also James Lee Burke - he writes some beautiful prose.

Posted by Kartar on 28 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Kartar, thanks for the Mo Hayder recommendation. I did look at "Tokyo" in my local bookstore but wasn't sufficiently captivated to take it to the cash register -- perhaps because I invariably find fault with minor details in fiction written by non-Japanese about Japanese subjects (the old "I know more about this than the author" syndrome coming into play). But I'll go back and take another look at "Tokyo".

Posted by Jonathon on 30 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I have ten words for you:

"The curious incident of the dog in the night-time"

it's by Mark Haddon.

jri!

Posted by victor echo zulu on 30 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Great post, Jonathon. Sorry to hear you're ill. On the subject of reading, and Connelly, there's another Connelly who writes entertaining and not too deep semi-crime fiction, John Connelly. I say semi-crime because his stories are more character driven than plot, so it may not be the thing you're looking for right now, but I enjoyed "Man's Work". It's worth picking up if you can find it.

The 'lit' crime novel I couldn't bear was Martin Amis's "Night Train". Fine prose, but I couldn't buy that the characters would do the things Amis wanted them to.

I have to agree with Steve, though. You really can't go wrong with Hammett.

Posted by rocky on 11 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Rocky,

I've been curious about John Connelly since, as you'd expect, his books are next to Michael Connelly's on every bookstore shelf. I'm such a committed MC fan that I've never even bothered to pick up one of JC's, though I've often felt a tinge of sympathy for him -- it must be frustrating to share a name with someone in the same genre who is far more successful. Though, I guess the odd person must pick up a John Connelly book instead of the Michael Connelly that had been recommended to them (I reveal my prejudice in not imagining that the opposite might occur).

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 11 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour